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How to raise smart children in the wrong zip code

By Heather Staker

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, June 6 2013 1:58 p.m. MDT

Online classes could help kids and parents enhance the school system.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

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Experts predict the housing market to heat up this summer. But house shopping can be frustrating for parents, who sometimes feel limited in their selection because of the spotty quality of public schools. A house nearby a top quality public school generally commands a premium.

The good news is that parents have new options for patching together a truly superior education plan for their kids, regardless of neighborhood. These ideas require legwork, but they are all becoming affordable possibilities for K-12 students. Here are four suggestions—two that work within the public school system and two outside the system:

First, mix advanced online courses into your child’s schedule. Most states either require districts to allow students to take online courses, or they let districts decide for themselves. To find your state’s policy, click on Digital Learning Now!, select a state, and then click “View State Profile.” That will link you to an overview of how friendly any given state is to online courses. Then check out Keeping Pace, which names specific programs within each state. Furthermore, roughly 20 states have a central website that lists approved courses, such as these: ACCESS (Alabama), MoVIP (Missouri), IDEAL-NM (New Mexico), NCVPS (North Carolina), TXVSN (Texas), and Wyoming Switchboard Network (Wyoming).

Utah has a particularly helpful policy for parents. It lets districts authorize course providers, which means that parents can work within their districts to get the best courses approved. Many students there are starting to mix a few advanced online courses into their schedules to replace courses that are unavailable or mediocre in the neighborhood school.

Even elementary school children can benefit from targeted online opportunities in places where such opportunities are otherwise missing. Many in the younger set are blending online foreign language, music, or tutoring into their extracurricular (and in some cases, core) activities.

Second, ask your classroom teacher to let your child “prove it or lose it.” A young teen was falling behind in her math class, not to mention starting to despise math. Her father worked out a deal with the teacher whereby the teacher gave the student a calendar with dates for all the unit tests. The student was free to learn the material however she wanted, provided that she still attended class and passed the unit tests when the teacher administered them in class. But she could sit on the side of the classroom and work on her own, and she did not have to complete homework assignments. If she didn’t prove her progress with each unit test, the deal was off.

Excited about her windfall of control, the girl chose an entertaining math software program, for which her father gladly paid, and worked in the corner of the classroom and at night to prepare for each unit test. Her math results, as well as interest in math, soared.

This approach seems like a reasonable compromise. It allows students to find their own learning path, but still complies with standards, testing, attendance requirements, and so forth. If your child is ahead, the prove it/lose it method could also work to allow him or her to continue to advance independently without placing almost any extra work on the classroom teacher.

Third, set up a half-the-work (for you), twice-the-learning (for your child) homeschool. I am homeschooling one of my children for a few months until first grade. Each week I help her set learning goals and then let her choose how to achieve them. Most weekdays she free reads for up to an hour, writes a letter to her pen pal, completes 20 minutes of Dreambox math, and does Piano Marvel. It’s half the work of homeschooling for me, because I rely on the Internet for the backbone of her academics.

Meanwhile, she’s doing 10 hours per week of gymnastics training at the local gymnasium. She is passionate about gymnastics, and the 10 hours is much more than she would have time for if she were still in full-day kindergarten. It’s enough to allow gymnastics to be an area of excellence for her.

As online learning options expand and improve, I suspect more students will find they can master their core learning faster and then devote more time to apprenticeships and areas of excellence.

Fourth, keep your eye out for a micro-school (or start your own!). In theory, online learning will one day dramatically reduce the costs of obtaining an advanced education. As devices, communications tools, online tutorials, and learning science improve, entrepreneurs will find that online learning snaps easily into a brick-and-mortar shell, and we will see the proliferation of very affordable private schools. mSchool, an organization that helps community centers open one-classroom “microSchools,” is one early example. I imagine in the future we’ll see countless parent co-ops start to couple online learning with brick-and-mortar experiences to create a host of independent, blended-learning micro-schools.

Those are a few suggestions for radically enhancing your child’s learning possibilities without paying for a moving truck. For more background, watch Governor Jeb Bush give a national perspective on the rise of learning options in this video. Also, keep your eye out this month for a new Innosight Institute research paper about blended learning, which I have been lucky enough to co-author with Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn. In it we state that “as the online-learning ecosystem matures and political barriers become untenable, a noisy reshuffling will take place as students who before lived in the wrong zip code find that access to learning opportunities is no longer neighborhood defined.” I’m glad that’s becoming true!

Heather Clayton Staker is a mother of five. She is also a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think thank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.

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